ASPEN, Colo. — Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats sought to clarify remarks he made at a security conference here that infuriated President Trump and raised the possibility that the nation’s top intelligence official could be fired.
While interviewing Coats on stage at the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell read a White House tweet announcing that Russian President Vladimir Putin had been invited to Washington. A clearly surprised Coats, who had not been told of the invitation, laughed and said, “That’s going to be special.”
In a statement issued Saturday, Coats said, “My admittedly awkward response was in no way meant to be disrespectful or criticize the actions of the President.”
Earlier during the interview Thursday, Coats said that he didn’t know what Trump and Putin had discussed in their private meeting in Helsinki this week and that, had he been asked, he would have advised against meeting the Russian leader with no aides or note-takers present.
“Coats has gone rogue,” said one senior White House official after hearing of the director’s remarks.
But another U.S. official called those accusations unfair and said Coats would never try to undercut or embarrass the president.
Coats and Trump do not have a contentious relationship, officials say, though it’s not close. That Coats spoke at all, and so candidly, was somewhat out of his step with his custom. Some national security officials have referred to Coats as “Marcel Marceau,” after the French mime, because “Coats never says anything,” said one person familiar with the nickname.
Coats, in his statement, said, “I and the entire intel community are committed to providing the best possible intelligence to inform and support President Trump’s ongoing efforts to prevent Russian meddling in our upcoming elections, to build strong relationships internationally in order to maintain peace, denuclearize dangerous regimes and protect our nation and our allies.”
Trump decided Thursday morning to have national security adviser John Bolton schedule a second summit and officially invite Putin to visit, The Washington Post has reported. The White House knew that Coats was speaking in Aspen at the time that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted that Trump had extended an invitation to the Russian president, officials said.
There was no indication that Coats or his staff had been aware of what was coming. The timing of that announcement was “unfortunate,” said the official who defended Coats.
Earlier in the week, Coats had also seemed to distance himself from the White House when he issued a statement reaffirming the intelligence agencies’ unanimous conclusion that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election and that one of Putin’s goals was to help Trump’s campaign.
That statement from Coats came only moments after Trump, standing next to Putin at a news conference in Helsinki, said he doubted those conclusions.
In Aspen, Coats defended his decision to reaffirm the intelligence agencies’ findings. “It was a part of my role, and I felt that it was important that I do that. It has been said, it has been discussed personally with the president, and I think it’s time to move on.”